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3-Point Checklist: Should You Buy Unilever plc, British American Tobacco plc Or Associated British Foods plc?

Over the last decade, investing in companies that make everyday items used by millions of people has been a very profitable strategy.

Investors in Unilever (LSE: ULVR) (NYSE: UL.US), British American Tobacco (LSE: BATS) (NYSE: BTI.US) and Associated British Foods (LSE: ABF) have seen their shares outperform the FTSE 100 by up to 240%.

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However, times change and these firms have reported slowing growth in a number of key markets: should you buy, sell or hold Unilever, Associated British Foods and British American Tobacco in today’s market?

1. Reliable growth

All three of these firms have delivered remarkable earnings and dividend growth since 2005, but you may be surprised at the firm that’s been the top performer:

10-year average annual growth

Unilever

British American Tobacco

Associated British Foods

Earnings per share

11.8%

8.8%

7.1%

Dividend per share

14.9%

12.2%

11.0%

Unilever has been the standout performer over the last decade, increasing its dividend payout by an average of almost 15% per year for ten consecutive years. That’s seriously good.

Interestingly, Unilever’s share price hasn’t reflected this outperformance — Unilever shares have risen by 152% over the last decade, compared to 281% for British American, and 279% for Primark-owner Associated British Foods.

2. Profitability

All three of these firms enjoy strong profit margins and generate decent returns on capital.

In my view, these are key metrics for shareholders, as they indicate how likely a company is to be able to provide rising shareholder returns:

 

Unilever

British American Tobacco

Associated British Foods

2014 operating margin

16.4%

38.7%

8.3%

2014 return on capital employed

28.1%

26.1%

13.9%

Interestingly, Unilever’s operating profit margin and return on capital employed (ROCE) are both twice as high as those of Associated British Foods, suggesting that Unilever is ultimately a higher quality business.

This is probably due to Unilever’s focus on branded consumer products, which command higher profit margins than the wholesale ingredients, which form a large part of ABF’s food business.

At BAT, the picture is slightly different: BAT’s operating margin of 38.7% is stunning, and might lead you to expect a higher ROCE.

However, BAT prefers to calculate operating margin after subtracting tobacco excise, duty and other taxes from total turnover. BAT’s operating margin including tobacco taxes is around 11%, which is more in-line with its ROCE of 26%.

3. Outlook for growth

Of course, the past is history: as investors, we need to look ahead at what might happen to each firm’s profits and dividends in the future.

City analysts are currently quite bullish about the outlook at all three firms this year:

 

Unilever

British American Tobacco

Associated British Foods

2015 forecast earnings growth

12.8%

5.8%

3.6%

2015 forecast P/E

21.9

17.2

28.1

2015 prospective yield

3.1%

4.3%

1.2%

In my view, ABF’s valuation already prices in a lot of earnings growth, and given how low the firm’s yield is, I can’t see much attraction at current prices.

Unilever and BAT both look reasonably good buys to me — although they aren’t cheap, I believe both are likely to deliver above-average returns over the next decade.

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Roland Head owns shares in Unilever. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of Unilever. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.